A character that we all love to hate can make a book. There’s Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, whose awfulness is undeniable. But it’s not always so clear.
Recently I have been reading books with more ambiguous bad guys (and girls).
First was the silly, naughty and strangely appealing, Lydia from Pride and Prejudice. I know, I know, Lydia is a troublemaker who put the future of her entire family at risk due to her flighty, impetuous behaviour. But who didn’t make mistakes at her age? And with her prettier and cleverer sisters, and even her own father, constantly raising their eyebrows at her, who wouldn’t want to shake things up a bit?
Having read the book, I was torn about where my loyalties lay, but after seeing the BBC adaptation (the one with Colin Firth as Mr Darcy), I was decided. Lydia was positively bursting with the joy of life, unable to contain her excitement at the prospect of following all those handsome soldiers to Brighton. But she was just as excited at balls, dancers and dinner parties, despite the pained looks she received from her sisters. I know who I’d prefer to share a few drinks with.
The so often ridiculed and despised Lydia was not just an unstoppable ball of fun, she also dealt with regular reminders of the superiority of her sisters’ beauty and wit extremely well, failing to skip a beat when she saw her sister receiving all the attention from the likes of Mr Wickham and Mr Bingley. She just laughed and found another soldier who was prepared to take her for a spin around the room.
More recently I have been reading Such a Fun Age, in which the villain was the Mrs Chamberlain, who hired a young black woman to babysit her child. While Mrs Chamberlain struggled to retain some sense of herself after having two children and moving away from the exciting New York to Philadelphia, she took an interest in her young, cool and pretty babysitter’s life and tried desperately to befriend her.
Sure, some of her behaviours were questionable, and the reasons behind her desperation to gain Emira’s trust were a little dubious, but on the whole, I’m not sure she deserved the denouement she received. Rather than hating her, I felt sorry for her, with her neediness and her fragile self-esteem. She clearly struggled to overcome the pain of her rejection at school, and found the only way to deal with her poor decision-making was to wholeheartedly back that decision. For all of her privilege it was clear that she was a long way from being happy or content. While she was by no means entirely blameless, who ever is?
Another character who might reasonably seem to be hard to like, but who is hard to hate, was the sister of the title in My Sister, the Serial Killer. Ayoola was shallow, violent and vain. And despite causing immense pain when her suitors died suddenly at her hands as she ‘defended herself’, Ayoola was oblivious, angling her beautiful face for another selfie. A clear and undeniable target for hate, you might assume. And yet, like her more responsible sister, Korede, who loves Ayoola despite all that she puts her through, it is hard not to feel some level of affection for her. If nothing else, her gall is insouciance are extremely amusing.
Even characters that seem beyond redemption can become objects of pity, if not affection, by the end of the book. In The Dutch House, the stepmother behaves in a hideous manner towards her husband’s children, kicking them out of their own house after their father dies and leaving them with little more than the clothes on their back. However, when the children finally return to the house as adults, they find their stepmother in a state that it is impossible not to pity. Despite the pain that she has caused, her final humbling is all-too human. I wouldn’t say she is forgiven, but hate seems futile at that point.
In 100 Years of Dirt, Rick Morton offers a detailed background of the dysfunction of his father’s family, before he writes about the way he rejected his wife and children, leaving them in abject poverty. While his father’s behaviour seems contemptible, the backstory makes it possible to empathise in some way with his decision, or more accurately, his inability to make better decisions. I’m not sure that this fully redeemed him, but it did offer context and explanation to soften any response to him.
Perhaps I am wrong about Wuthering Heights‘ Heathcliff, possibly the most hated character in literature, and even his behaviour is in some way understandable. He has his own baggage resulting from whatever occurred in his childhood before he is picked up off the street by Catherine’s father, and as a result of the loss of Catherine, with which he could not cope. It is not hard to imagine that in different circumstances he would have been an entirely different person to the one he became.
All of these characters reveal the contradictions that appear not just in fiction, but also in the real people around us, who are rarely entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
I agree with writer Terry Goodkind’s words when he said, “There is no such thing as pure good or pure evil, least of all in people. In the best of us there are thoughts or deeds that are wicked, and in the worst of us, at least some virtue.”
When books give us the backstory of characters, fleshing out their motivations and sources of their prejudice, it is hard to hate them. I’m up to the sixth Harry Potter book, and I’m wondering whether even Voldemort’s backstory will be told, illuminating how he turned to evil and decided to take everyone’s favourite boy wizard.
Is there a character who you hate? Or one that you thought you would hate, but ended up pitying?